Promised Land, Connie Willis & Cynthia Felice

promised_landPromised Land, Connie Willis & Cynthia Felice (1998)
Review by Jack Deighton

After her mother’s death Delanna Milleflores returns to Keramos, the backwater planet of her birth (from where she was sent years ago to get a decent education) to resolve complications over the inheritance. She wishes to sell up but local laws are strict and do not allow this unless the seller has been in occupation for ten years. In addition her pet scarab Cleo falls foul of the quarantine regulations and she finds that a marriage arranged by her long-dead father between Delanna and Tarleton Tanner (known as Sonny,) the man from the neighbouring farm (on Keramos these are called lanzye) who has been running Milleflores lanzye all these years, became legal. At the space-port she encountered local Lothario, Jay Madog, whose attentions she is plagued by from then on.

The apparent urgency with which her Keramos lawyer, Maggie, says she must take up residence in Milleflores in order to comply with the planet’s inheritance laws, necessitating catching the morning train, is somewhat vitiated by the fact that the terminus is still five thousand miles from Milleflores and it takes weeks to get there. The length of the journey would have disqualified her. The delay of course gives the authors plenty of opportunity to describe Delanna’s lack of knowledge of local customs and conditions and her adaptations to them.

From the start, though, we know where this is going. Delanna’s journey from worldly-wise offworlder (or been-to as they are known on Keramos) to falling in love with her childhood home again – and with Sonny – her accommodations to the idiosyncracies of life on Keramos (including a world-wide radio news and gossiping network where her inadequacies are exposed and everybody’s business discussed mercilessly) has an obvious arc which the authors do not eschew. The traffic is not all one way. She is able to contribute some of her expensively learned been-to computer skills to finding the best routes through dangerous salt-flats.

Promised Land is a very Willis kind of story in which her signature narrative technique of delay by interruption, of not getting to the nub of a situation, which so marred To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout and All Clear, is to the fore. At first I thought her co-author Felice had muted this trait but it becomes increasingly irritating as the book progresses. Another quirk is that the main structural building material on Keramos is tile. (Keramos, you see.). Add in a sub-plot about an over-officious vet, Doc Lyle, and his obsession with protecting the wild-life and livestock of Keramos from contamination, particularly the very rare birds called Royal Mandarins, an obsession which threatens to endanger Cleo, and the indigenous animals known as Fire Monkeys (fascinated by Delanna’s red hair) and the elements are present for all the ends to be tied up.

This review originially appearedon A Son of the Rock.


The Sunbound, Cynthia Felice

sunboundThe Sunbound, Cynthia Felice (1981)
Review by Ian Sales

Allis runs a successful tool and die company, but when her partner dies on a desert camping trip, and admits with his dying breath that he’s not from Earth, and then a pair of crew from his alien ship turn up and take her away with them… Daneth was a “star gypsy” and a “stone-carrier”. He was also co-captain of the Sovereign Sun, a spaceship which travelled throughout the occupied galaxy by harnessing the power of the solar winds for interplanetary travel… and using “gravity slips” for interstellar travel. And that “stone” which Daneth gifted to Allis on his death-bed is a telephathic communications device, rare enough to force the gypsies to kidnap her. To make matters worse, the Sovereign Sun‘s other co-captain Milani was Daneth’s lover, is also a stone-carrier, and bitterly resents that Allis now has Daneth’s stone. (When given with love, the stones live; otherwise they die.)

It’s an interesting set-up, made more so by the fact it is happening now out there – Earth is as we know it, or rather knew it in 1981, but the civilisation which spawned the gypsies and their ships, and the various humanoid races with which they trade, all exist out in the galaxy. Allis’s resentment at being kidnapped, her reluctance to accept the stone Daneth gave her, and Milani’s hatred of her for that reason are all excellent engines to drive a plot. But…

Well, there are a couple of problematical aspects to The Sunbound, and in this day and age it’s hard to overlook them. In the universe of the gypsies – who are all, incidentally, tall and pale-skinned, suffering genetic damage from years of space-based living, and have trouble breeding – trade between worlds is pretty much controlled by a race of humanoids called the Watchers. These were the first to realise the usefulness of the artefacts left behind by the long-vanished Quondam Beings (the results of a thesaurus search, if ever I saw one) and use them to build an advanced civilisation. And they’re still keen to find such artefacts – even if the host civilisation is not aware of what they possess. In fact, the Watchers stood by and let the gypsies destroy their homeworld in a nuclear war in order to profit in this trade, but those gypsies travelling between worlds survived… but had to sell the secret of the gravity slips to the Watchers to safeguard their survival.

It’s an interesting set-up, and used well, except… the Watchers are described as brown-skinned and turban-wearing, and they not only breed people for specific roles in their society but actually breed, or interfere in the womb as fetuses, their women to be mentally subnormal. One Watcher character even brags of one of his wives, “I put her down a while ago, when her vagina lost elasticity” (p 139). Seriously, WTF? And the mention of turbans and brown skin, the racial profiling, of the Watchers smacks of Islamaphobia, never mind racism.

That the plot later involves the crew of the Sovereign Sun being waylaid by pirate gypsies, and the survivors – which includes all the major characters – put to forced labour aboard the pirate ship, does nothing to offset the racist portrait of the Watchers. The pirates may be gypsies, and so white, and may treat the protagonists badly… but the villains of the piece are most definitely the Watchers. The pirates are irredeemably evil, but in this instance they’re acting under the instructions of a Watcher, and so their villainy is by definition an extension of his character.

The whole thing spoils what might otherwise have been a fun, if undemanding, science fiction novel if its time. True, the hatred between Allis and Milani begins to wear thin after a while, and the fact the two must eventually overcome their differences and cooperate is pretty much obvious from the novel’s start… And the general concept of the universe, with its Quondam Beings and assorted humanoid races living in their ruins, is intriguing… But the positioning of the Watchers as turbaned brown people who treat their women like pampered animals leaves a very bad taste in the mouth.

It’s a shame because Felice’s first novel, Godsfire, wasn’t half bad, and the novel following The Sunbound, 1983’s Eclipses sounds worth a read (Felice re-issued all her novels on Kindle in 2012 and 2013). I will continue to keep an eye open for her books, but I cannot in good conscience recommend The Sunbound.

Godsfire, Cynthia Felice

godsfireGodsfire, Cynthia Felice (1978)
Review by Ian Sales

It’s not all that often the cover art on a science fiction novel gives a good indication of what’s inside, but Godsfire‘s actually does a halfway decent job of setting out precisely what the reader can expect to find. To wit, a race of cat-people (who are not always naked, but never mind). And humans. But in Godsfire, the word “human” refers to the cat people, and homo sapiens are actually their slaves – in fact, a discussion of the “humanity” of the slaves is one of several themes driving the novel’s plot.

Heao is an academic, or rather, a member of Academe, a sort of philosophical and scientific thinktank which advises the ruling prince of the city, as well researching things simply for knowledge’s sake. She is also a gifted cartographer, so much so her nickname is “Pathfinder”. The highland town where she lives was recently conquered by a lowland “King-conqueror”, and now life is slowly returning to normal. Heao meets the enterprising merchant lowland Baltsar, and through him learns more about his slaves – which are rare in the highlands. She accompanies Baltsar to meet the King-conqueror, drawing a new map of the landscape as they travel from highlands through badlands to the lowlands, and even finds a quicker route. It transpires that Heao, the King-conqueror and the head of their religion, Tarana, have all had dreams which affect the destiny of the race and somewhow involve “godsfire”. And such dreams are taken very seriously…

Godsfire is essentially a sustained piece of world-building, but it’s a bravura piece. Felice handles her cat people with a remarkable degree of invention, and their physiology and society reads as surprisingly convincing. It’s the small details – their diet, their lack of distance vision, the way they use their tails to signal mood or add colour to their speech. It’s only halfway through the book, for example, during a conversation between Heao and her slave Teon that it becomes clear the characters are colour-blind. The physical details of Heao’s world are also cleverly constructed – the book’s blurb calls it the “shadowlands”, which refers to the land beneath the “skybridge”. Heao’s people believe this is used by the gods, one of which carries godsfire, the great heat that provides sufficient light to live beneath in the shadow beneath the skybridge. The land is limited by the Evernight Mountains to the north, the sea to the south, and there are apparently other peope lto east and west which prevent expansion up and down the coast. It’s not exactly hard to figure out the actual set-up, but Felice does an excellent job of remaining within the viewpoint of her creations.

The first half of the novel introduces the main cast and their world. It then leaps forward nineteen years. Heao is mated to Batlsar, and they have a daughter. She also believes the slaves (ie, homo sapiens) are as fully human as her people, which means by law they should not be enslaved. But to free them would destroy the economy, not to mention upset religious dogma. As a result Heao is shunned by the guardians of the temple, which means she is ostracised by the entire town. Eventually, she is forced to recant, after her mentor is poisoned. This leaves her free to lead an expedition through the Evernight Mountains, because she’s the only person who could so so. On the other side of the mountains, out from under the skybridge, she learns the truth about godsfire, and about the slaves.

Science fiction novels which tell their stories from the viewpoint of an alien are not unusual. Such novels in which humans feature as “alien” to the protagonists are perhaps less common. It’s a difficult trick to pull off – not only do the aliens have to seem sufficiently human for a reader to find them sympathetic, but the humans also have to appear sufficiently alien for the plot to work. Felice manages this successfully – and this despite the fact humans are there in the narrative from pretty much the first page. It’s true the world-building is the most impressive element of Godsfire – and that nineteen-year jump in the story does make the story feel a little disjointed – but it’s worth noting that Heao is a well-drawn protagonist. Perhaps she’s a little too special in some respects, but she’s a thoughtful and sympathetic viewpoint, and this without sacrificing her alien nature.

Worth reading.